Rusty still designing dresses fit for a Queen

One of Rusty's colour sketches and a newspaper cutting showing the Queen wearing the dress for a 1999 Royal Variety Performance. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG140612-11MD
One of Rusty's colour sketches and a newspaper cutting showing the Queen wearing the dress for a 1999 Royal Variety Performance. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG140612-11MD
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RUSTY Lewis took more interest in the outfits worn by the Queen during the Diamond Jubilee weekend of celebrations than most of us.

She has a professional interest, having been involved most of her adult life in designing the signature outfits worn by the Queen and, when she was still alive, the Queen Mother.

Rusty Lewis with silks given to her by designer to royalty Norman Hartnell. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG140612-16MD

Rusty Lewis with silks given to her by designer to royalty Norman Hartnell. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG140612-16MD

Rusty, of Marsh Road, Gedney Drove End, spent years working for the late Sir Norman Hartnell, fashion designer to royalty and to stars of stage and screen, as well as for lavish society weddings and debutantes at a time when there were such things.

Sir Norman made the coronation dress for the Queen as well as wedding dresses for both Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, although that was before Rusty joined the firm as design assistant, to produce colour sketches of the great designer’s ideas.

When Rusty went to the couture house she already had wide experience, having worked for a number of companies following her dress design and clothing technology course at what is now the London College of Fashion.

She had worked for C&A, turning out 20 ideas for coats and suits each day, as well as smaller, higher-end companies, and had realised her talents lay as an artist rather than a designer.

“The designer comes up with the ideas and the artist draws them for clients or for the press,” explains Rusty, who is married to Mo.

It was a design assistant who saw Rusty’s sketches who said her skills were wasted and that she should be working in couture. Normal Hartnell had a vacancy for a design assistant and offered Rusty the job on the spot when she went for an interview.

Rusty says: “I went there in about 1964 and he was renowned particularly for evening wear, bridal wear, things with elaborate embroidery. In a couture house everything is hand made and the embroiderers were wonderful.

“I would be given a piece of material and a pencil sketch and I would do a painted picture, looking fashionable and exaggerating the figure, but the clients have to be able to see themselves, to picture what they are going to look like.”

Rusty spent about four years with the great designer before moving on, but a few years later, when Mr Hartnell once again needed a design assistant and Rusty was freelancing, she heard from him again.

Rusty said: “This was in the early 70s and the bottom had fallen out of the expensive fashion side.

The younger generation didn’t want couture and whereas when I first went there there were a lot of young debutantes, that had all gone. Most of his clients were mature people and his business wasn’t what it had been and he was cutting back.”

Rusty was asked to work freelance for Hartnell’s, which she did until he died in 1979.

During that time, she did a lot of work for the Queen Mum. “I used to say she was my bread and butter really because she loved clothes and we did a lot, evening wear, silk dresses, light wool coats, all sorts.”

Having worked together for such a long time, they were able to put their heads together when working on new ideas for the Queen or Queen Mum, incorporating aspects of well-loved dresses into new designs. Armed with sketches and materials, Rusty would come up with ten or 12 paintings for Mr Hartnell to take to Clarence House or Buckingham Palace. Once a garment had been made she would create a painting for the Royal record books, which were used as a reference when planning State visits.

Rusty continued working for Hartnell’s after the designer’s death, and when the firm got into financial difficulties she continued to work freelance for its designer John Anderson, who had set up in business on his own.

In time, Rusty started working for his partner, Karl Rehse – better known as Karl Ludwig Couture – who has made eight or nine outfits for the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year.

Rusty at 72 is still producing sketches for the royal record books – she describes the Queen’s style as “unfussy, in lovely colours”.

However, she says: “I am not divulging anything about the things we have done because she hasn’t worn any of the things Karl’s made, but I shall be watching television to see if she wears anything of his.”